Fear of Landing: Deportation Can Lead To Stigma At Home
More than half of all deportees from the U.S. are criminals. What does that mean for those who are not?
Welcome to “ICE Air”, where the flight attendants wear street clothes and the passengers fly free.
"My country is very dangerous," says Carlos Galicia Molina, who had been living illegally in New York City for 12 years before his immigration status caught up with him.
I ask if any part of him is happy to go home.
"No," he says. "No. No."
His fellow passengers are mostly men in dirty clothes. They were likely caught immediately upon crossing the U.S. border. Twelve are in handcuffs. On this flight, those men have been convicted of relatively minor crimes, like drunken driving. On average, about half of all deportees are convicted criminals, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Now, that number is bound to go higher.
The Obama Administration announced that it will do a case-by-case review of the 300,000 or so people awaiting deportation. People who people who broke the law – beyond crossing the border illegally – will be the first to climb aboard airplanes or buses.
The Criminal Stigma
About 30,000 feet above Mexico, Galicia said he's terrified of the violence that awaits him at home. He used to be a cop in Guatemala City, a place where 55 murders are reported every week. There’s a man in handcuffs sleeping a few rows back with tattoos in cursive script on his neck. That's the type of person you watch out for in Guatemala, Galicia said.
"When I see a criminal, I know. Tattoos. Short hair. The way they talk. It's easy,” he explained. “They will cut you outside. They will beat you and take everything you have."
Some flights to Central America – Honduras and El Salvador, in particular – are completely full of shackled criminals coming out of the American prison system, according to Vincent Piccard, an ICE spokesman.
Those countries are known for their violent gangs that have extended their reach into the Southwestern United States.
But mixing criminals with illegal border crossers has led to side effects. It's hard to know who's good, and who's bad, especially when people have been living in the United States for many years and have adopted American customs. This confusion can lead to what researchers call "deportation stigma."
University of California - Irvine’s Susan Coutin studied men in El Salvador who’ve struggled to assimilate after deportation.
"Those who had visible tattoos sometimes were mistaken for gang members, or they had tried to leave behind the gang life,” she said. “So there was suspicion that they were criminals."
In the United States, tattoos are common and not necessarily a gang marking. But in Central America, they’re looked upon with suspicion, Coutin said.
"They were afraid of what would happen when they land," she said of the deportees.
Fear of Landing
That stigma is just one more hurdle some passengers will face when they get home.
Four hours after takeoff, ICE Air lands in Guatemala City. A Guatemalan immigration agent gives a rousing welcome to the passengers. Each receives a sandwich and a carton of orange juice.
"Lift up your spirits," she said. "Guatemalans are known for resilience and for hard work!"
In fact, the mood on the plane ride down was a mix of excitement to be home and fear of what’s next. A human rights worker at the airport said some of these deportees will come back feeling like failures when facing their families again. Most will be desperate, and penniless.
Among those who must start over today is Marco Solis Pineda, the man on the plane suspected of being a gangster. The 27-year-old wears a red t-shirt, and white socks pulled halfway up his calf. He looks American.
"I am a little nervous,” he said. “But I’m happy to see my country again."
Solis said his tattoos are not gang related. On the left side of his neck, it says “my first love is Margarita.” That’s his wife, who still lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma with his two young children.
Oklahoma court records show no other criminal history for Solis in that state.
He lived in the U.S. since he was a teenager, and because of his tattoos and short hair, he's worried he’ll be harassed outside the airport.
"I won't find work here because of the tattoos," he said. "You're discriminated against if you have them."
So in two weeks, Solis said he will travel north again. He’ll climb aboard a cargo train in Mexico bound for his family in the U.S. With the ink on his neck, he said, it’s too dangerous to take a bus.